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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: David vs. Goliath—with a bit of windbaggery—in...

Screen Grabs: David vs. Goliath—with a bit of windbaggery—in ‘The Duke’

Plus: Clothes fly off in 'Anais in Love,' animated tragedy in 'Charlotte,' Gong Li returns, and Bernard-Henri Lévy saves the world

Roger Michell died last fall at age 65; that event abruptly deprived the British film industry of one of its pillars for the last three decades—a director who seldom attracted great personal attention with his style onscreen or off, but who was a reliably fine craftsman responsible for some excellent films. He had the occasional dud (notably Hyde Park on Hudson), but he generally elevated middling material while getting the most out of the good stuff.

His long collaboration with writer Hanif Kureishi, starting with 1993 miniseries The Buddha of Suburbia, resulted in three very fine features, The Mother, Venus, and Le Week-End. He did well with romcom fluff (the very popular Notting Hill), period pieces (My Cousin Rachel), and even suspense (the underseen Changing Lanes), in addition to substantial work for the stage, plus the odd documentary or music video.

Like his last film, the starry US seriocomedy Blackbird, posthumously-released The Duke isn’t up there with Michell’s best, but it deals expertly with the story at hand. Which is a fact-based one: In 1961 Newcastle a sexagenarian named Kempton Bunton was charged with inexplicably stealing Goya’s “Portrait of the Duke of Wellington” from the National Gallery.

Well, it was perhaps explicable to him: As portrayed here by Jim Broadbent, Bunton was the kind of crusading crank whose maximum harrumphing over petty causes was the cross his wife (Helen Mirren) must bear, and the punchline to a running joke for everyone else. Disgruntled when his latest cause (objecting to Britain’s household TV licensing) met with shut official doors in London, he impulsively lifted the early 19th century painting in reprisal. Or so, at least, it seems.

This David vs. Goliath seriocomedy would be more appealing if its underdog were easier to root for, but he’s a bit much—a windbagging music-hall comedy turn in Richard Bean and Clive Coleman’s formulaic script. It’s a character that resists even Broadbent’s efforts to endear, just as the formidable Mirren impresses yet isn’t particularly rewarded by drabbing down for her role.

As ever, Michell gets sound work from solid supporting players, here including Fionn Whitehead, Matthew Goode, and James Wilby. Jaunty if unmemorable, The Duke provides a premature coda to the director’s filmography that underlines his reliable professionalism, even if it doesn’t really require (or access) the greater depths of his talent. It opens Fri/29 at Bay Area theaters including the Opera Plaza, Albany Twin and Regency 6 in San Rafael, expanding to more local screens on May 6.

Other new arrivals in theaters this Friday:

New French Cinema: Too Much, And Not Enough
Two fiction features from France provide psychological Rorschachs of female protagonists that feel, in very different ways, both accomplished and unsatisfactory.

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The title figure (played by Anais Demoustier, so one assumes the role was written for her) in Anais in Love is introduced as she’s frequently seen for the next 90-odd minutes: Running, perpetually late, a blur of disorganized energy and ditzy charm. At least we’re meant to find her charming; I was immediately put off by this Manic Pixie Dream Girl schtick, and never won back. Anyway, Anais is a grad student running behind on her thesis project (natch), equally unconcerned with her rent or her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend (whom she informs she’s pregnant and planning an abortion as a casual afterthought), stumbling into an affair with much-older publisher Daniel (Denis Podalydes) for no obvious reason—she doesn’t even seem to like him much.

Then by chance she meets Daniel’s spouse, semi-famous writer Emilie (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), and is instantly smitten—to the degree of becoming a de facto stalker. They duly also have a fling, and the only real substance to be found in writer-director Charline Bourgeoise-Tacquet’s debut feature arrives when the always welcome VBT gets a late, long speech explaining why, as a mature grownup, she has decided that liaison cannot continue.

Anais in Love is well-made, but either you will find its heroine enchanting—as several characters here inexplicably do—or you will want to wring her neck. This Rohmer-esque comedy about a terminally childish, impulsive young adult advocates for the former standpoint in part by having her whip off her clothes as often as possible. But it’s Anais’ naked personality I found a complete turn-off. The film opens Fri/29 at the Opera Plaza, Albany Twin and Rafael Film Center.

Contrastingly pared to the bone—rather than ingratiating itself like a hyperactive puppy—is Petite Maman, the latest from Celine Sciamma, who also made 2019’s period Sapphic romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I found that film a bit too watching-paint-dry, though I’d liked some of the writer-director’s prior films (notably Tomboy). Though much shorter, at just 72 minutes, this new film is also restrained to an arguable fault. Eight-year-old Nelly (Josephine Santz) has just lost her grandmother, an upset the adults around her cannot fully ease or explain. Then she meets a mysterious child in the forest, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz, the lead’s actual sibling), who seems to have been sent as a kind of instructive play-therapist.

There is indeed a sort of magic going on here (one quite blatantly “spoiled” by the title), and it is nice how Petit Maman depicts that in an utterly matter-of-fact way. But while the juvenile performances are indeed highly impressive, and many have found the whole deeply moving, I can’t quite embrace Sciamma’s approach—her observational distance is admirable for resisting sentimentality, but its nonchalance borders on indifference. I wanted to be moved, and just couldn’t get there. The film opens Fri/29 at numerous Bay Area theaters including the Kabuki (if that’s re-opened after last week’s supposedly temporary shutter), Shattuck and Rafael.

Saturday Fiction
Belatedly getting a US release is this 2019 Chinese feature from director Ye Lou (Suzhou River). It offers a fine showcase for Gong Li, who in 1990s films by Zhang Yimou (Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, To Live) and Chen Kaige (Temptress Moon, Farewell My Concubine), as well as subsequent international projects (most notably Memories of a Geisha), became arguably the most famous and admired female star ever from mainland China. Yet before this film, her work had grown sparse for over a decade—due perhaps partly to selectivity, but also to the minefield a celebrity in her position must walk re: the Chinese government, which reportedly blacklisted her for becoming a citizen of Singapore.

Here, she plays a Shanghai stage actress forced to flee the city in 1937, returning four years later (under a different name) as a famous film star—and, covertly, a spy for the Allies, moving uneasily between Japanese occupiers, Chinese residents, and various foreign refugees or operatives. Yingli Ma’s script offers a lot of convoluted intrigue that is not especially engrossing, particularly as shot in a grey-tones monochrome whose attempted period flavor gets compromised by hand-held camerawork and other too-modern devices.

Yet when these fictive events in the days just before Pearl Harbor culminate in a long, bullet-riddled climactic melee, the narrative snaps into sharp, shocking focus. And the film is certainly worth seeing for Gong Li, whose commanding authority as a screen presence remains undimmed. Saturday Fiction opens Fri/29 at SF’s Presidio, Berkeley’s Elmwood, and Marin’s Rafael Film Center.

Charlotte
Another WW2-related tale is this animated film by Eric Warin and Tahir Rana, a Canadian/French/Belgian co-production. It tells the true (if partly speculated) story of Charlotte Salomon, a young Jewish Berliner who eventually met the fate of an estimated six million Jews during the Holocaust. But her story, like Anne Frank’s, remains particularly memorable because of the record she left behind—in her case, over a thousand small paintings providing a visual autobiography of a life she seemed to know would be snuffed out prematurely.

Those expressionist images—permanently housed in an Amsterdam museum, but also accessible in books, online, etc.—are not only inevitably poignant, but also aesthetically striking. It is too bad, then, that this dramatization of the subject’s later years should be animated in a rather routine line-drawing style that owes so little to her gouaches, and has so little flavor of its own. Nonetheless, with Keira Knightley leading an impressive voice cast that also includes Jim Broadbent, Brenda Blethyn, Eddie Marsan, and others, it is accomplished enough to convey some force of historical and individual tragedy. Charlotte opens Fri/29 at the Opera Plaza and Shattuck Cinemas.

The Will to See
War is also the preoccupation of Bernard-Henri Lévy, albeit by force of personal and professional conscience rather than unavoidable circumstances. BHL, as he is known at home, is a public intellectual—a term that’s had no relevance in the US for half a century, and is near-unthinkable now—whose reportage, lecturing, books, TV appearances, and such have long made him a high-profile figure in France, if also a divisive one.

As a filmmaker, he began with 1994’s Bosna!, a searing indictment of mostly Serb-driven genocide in the “Yugoslav Wars,” and the West’s foot-dragging intervention. He then made a first (and so far last) venture into narrative cinema with the starry 1997 La jour et la nuit, a pretentious boondoggle of legendary proportions. Since then, he’s stuck to documentaries, none of which have gotten much exposure here. None, that is, until The Will to See, which one French observer aptly dubbed “Moi, BHL, Saveur du Monde!” (“Me, BHL, Savior of the World!”)

Gratitude is due Levy’s tireless calling of international attention to various ignored or forgotten wars around the globe, where people are slaughtered out of religious fanaticism or simple lust for power. In archival footage here, we see him in 1971 Bangladesh, 1980 Cambodia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Sudan, Darfur, et al. In the present tense, this new film (co-directed with Marc Roussel) shows him touring combat zones, massacre sites, and refugee camps in Nigeria, Kurdistan, Ukraine, Somalia, Libya, and more. COVID won’t stop his crusade—indeed he seems annoyed by the pandemic, and is never seen wearing a mask.

It adds up to what Levy describes in his incessant voiceover narration as “My tour of the world’s forgotten wars, which resembles a descent into Hell.” This ought to be sobering and chastening; one can hardly help but be moved by the victims filmed. But The Will to See eventually collapses under the weight of a colossus: Levy’s ego. The entire film becomes about him, resembling a giant testimonial dinner. He’s in nearly every shot, sometimes ludicrously so (shown rappelling a cliff-face alongside soldiers at age 73, etc.), forever hugging resistance leaders and rescued villagers, as if he were the one/only advocate for peace in a world of chaos.

Almost no one else gets to speak, and when they do, it’s only in conversation with our perpetually on-screen “star.” How much actual pull he has to problem-solve in diplomatic or other circles goes unaddressed. (The one time the UN is mentioned, it’s suggested he is doing their work for them.) But in any case, the endless, oblivious self-regard dominating this checklist of global injustices becomes truly embarrassing after a while. It’s one thing to be on a crusade; it’s another to appoint yourself Messiah, and make a film that’s like your own congratulatory ticker-tape parade. The Will To See opens at Opera Plaza Fri/29, BHL himself will be at Opera Plaza for a post-screening Q&A on Sun/1.

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